On April 12, 2018, members of The Film Society of Lincoln Center and invited guests were treated to a very special evening in The Big Apple. Elvis Presley: The Searcher was presented in its entirety on the big screen at the Center's elegant and state-of-the-art Walter Reade Theater, two days before its official HBO debut.
Former HBO executive Kary Antholis, also one of the film's producers, introduced producer Jon Landau and director Thom Zimny, who then introduced the film itself. Zimny, a graduate of Manhattan's School of Visual Arts and a longtime resident of New York, expressed how much it meant to him personally to screen the film at Lincoln Center. He ended his brief, heartfelt speech by reminding the projectionist to "play it loud!"
Landau, who had served as both Record and Film Editor at Rolling Stone, called upon his extensive knowledge of cinema in closing his brief remarks to the Lincoln Center's audience: "I'm sure that at least some Film Society members here have noticed the similarity between our film's title and the title of Mr. [John] Ford's film [The Searchers, 1956]. That," Landau noted drolly, "is a good thought."
Earlier that evening, Backstreets got to chat with both Landau and Zimny about the music they selected for the film's soundtrack.
The 3CD Deluxe Edition of Elvis Presley: The Searcher - The Original Soundtrack (RCA-Sony/Legacy) was also produced by Landau and Zimny, along with esteemed Presley music archivist/researcher Ernst Mikael Jørgensen. The album's cover image, above — a 1960 publicity photo for the film Flaming Star, in which Presley turned his blue eyes brown with contact lenses — offers a small visual clue that even the most ardent Elvis fans will walk away from this collection seeing the artist and his work in at least a slightly different light. The image also happens to bear a striking resemblance to some of Frank Stefanko's famous 1978 photographs of Bruce Springsteen.
As Warren Zanes' liner notes attest, "What The Searcher became, and this collection embodies, is a mining operation, a stripping back to reveal the human story and those often hidden musical treasures." Such an approach is established early in the film, with the lesser-known 1956 Presley B-side "My Baby Left Me" playing over the film's opening credits, as the gates of Graceland swing open onscreen.
Jon Landau and Thom Zimny discuss the Searcher soundtrack with Backstreets - photograph by Rob DeMartin
"Those are the kind of details [Jon and I] look at," Zimny told us, "to go beyond the 'greatest hits.' One of my favorite moments in making this film, and collaborating with Jon in our traditional way, was 'My Baby Left Me.' That was a song that, honestly, I didn't remember."
It was Landau who first suggested using the track over the opening credits, in one of many conversations with the director about important aspects of Elvis's artistry, as they considered hundreds of hours' worth of Presley's music for the film.
"The first music that we hear, of course, has to be something unfamiliar that's exciting," Landau told Backstreets. "And so we went over to [our computer database of Elvis music]. I had some ideas, and Thom had some ideas, and what we hit on was 'My Baby Left Me.'" Landau described the track as having many of "the same musicians and the same type of feel" found on Elvis's first record "That's All Right" (and both songs were written by blues legend Arthur Crudup), but one that is far less familiar.
"It also had a great stand-up bass introduction," Landau continued, mimicking the bassline. "And when Thom put it with the doors to Graceland opening... There's a prelude, then that's really where the picture opens up."
The lyrical content of "My Baby Left Me" also signals early on that one of the film's major themes will be loss, including the way Elvis so often addressed loss in his art.
"Frankly, with Thom in particular," Landau added, "every square second, as well as every square foot, is considered. There is nothing automatic."
This intense collaborative process produced not only a documentary about Elvis Presley that's filled with unique imagery and insights, but also a soundtrack rich with both landmark recordings and "hidden musical treasures," to quote Zanes again.
Almost all of the music contained in the film appears on the aforementioned Deluxe Edition. One notable exception: While the soundboard portion of "An American Trilogy" used to accompany the previously unseen fan-shot Super-8 performance footage works so beautifully in the film, technical problems with the overall recording required it to be replaced on the soundtrack album with the Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite version of the song.
The first two discs are all Presley recordings and performances, while the third disc consists of recordings by artists who inspired Elvis and artists whom he inspired, as well as portions of Mike McCready's original score for the film.
The 3CD Deluxe Edition’s inner gatefold cover photo looks familiar…
Disc Three also contains one of the most amazing discoveries that Zimny made during his extensive dive into the Presley archives: a previously unreleased, circa-1956 (pre-Graceland) recording of Gladys and Vernon Presley singing "Home Sweet Home." (Strangely, the recording is credited to both Gladys and Vernon in the film, but only to Gladys on the soundtrack album. And one can't help but wonder if that might be Elvis himself accompanying his parents on piano.)
Another non-Presley recording on Disc Three, "Heartbreak Hotel" by The Orlons, a 1964 recording by the Philadelphia-based R&B group, probably wouldn't have made it into Elvis Presley: The Searcher or onto its soundtrack album if it weren't for Bruce Springsteen, who happened to be spending some time with Zimny during the editing of the film.
"Bruce was in the edit room," Thom told us, "and we were talking about [The Orlons' 1963 Top Ten hit] 'South Street.' He sang me 'South Street' from beginning to end. I had never heard it, but I loved the song, and [after that] I loved the group."
Some time later, Zimny was back in the edit room, in the midst of another late-night work session with his co-editor Anoosh Tertzakian. They were cutting one of the film's Elvis-in-Vegas sequences. "I turned to her and said, 'Let's find a funky version of an Elvis song for this.'"
They soon stumbled upon The Orlons' version of "Heartbreak Hotel" — which immediately attracted Zimny's attention, thanks to Springsteen's mini-music-lesson about the band.
"To me, [using the Orlons recording] is a great moment because it opens the film up. It's 'Elvis'… but it also fits the Vegas tone… and I would not have known about that group if it wasn't for Bruce in the edit room singing 'South Street.'"
- Shawn Poole reporting, with special thanks to Kary Antholis and Ryan Hilligoss
Elvis Presley: The Searcher remains available for viewing via HBO Max and on DVD in standard and collector's editions.
Read more from our archived coverage of Elvis Presley: The Searcher:
SEARCH ACROSS TEXAS: Elvis Presley: The Searcher's world premiere at SXSW 2018, by Shawn Poole
FOLLOW THAT DREAM: HBO's Elvis Presley: The Searcher, the Backstreets Review, by John Howie, Jr.